An important holiday is coming up on February 14. That holiday, of course, is
Jack Benny’s birthday.
Born Benjamin Kubelsky, Jack Benny (Feb. 14, 1894- Dec. 26, 1974) was one of the funniest comedians of all time, with both a successful radio (1932-1955) and TV (1950-1965) series.
One of the things that made Jack so funny was that he was one of the first comedians- if not the first- to make himself the brunt of the jokes, with his cast getting the laughs at his expense. Very famously, his first words on radio on The Ed Sullivan show, March 19, 1932 were “ladies and gentlemen, this is Jack Benny talking. There will now be a short pause while you say, ‘who cares?’”
In real life, Benny was very generous, but his radio persona was a skinflint. Rather than spend 5¢ on his own newspaper, he’d go over to his neighbors Ronald and Benita Colman (who played themselves) early in the morning, and read their newspaper before they got up.
He also portrayed himself as a horrible violinist, despite being very accomplished with the instrument. In several episodes he took lessons from Professor LeBlanc (voiced by Mel Blanc), who once lamented “play it softly, play it tender, where can I go to surrender?” And LeBlanc’s pleas for payment were often met with one excuse or another and/or a delaying tactic.
More often than not, Jack would have to go to his subterranean vault (which was surrounded by a moat) to get Professor LeBlanc’s nominal fee.
He didn’t get down there too often. On one occasion, the guard was updated on the political landscape: Lincoln was no longer president.
Which was a dig at Jack being very old. For his part, Jack often insisted he was 39. So focused was Jack on hiding his true age, that in one radio episode, he needed to know his actual age, so he asked his butler, Rochester (Eddie Anderson), to check his birth certificate. Rochester’s response? They’d erased the birth date so many times that they’d torn a hole in the paper.
On the Feb. 19, 1963 episode of his TV series, to encourage guest Connie Francis to open up and tell the audience a little about herself, he said he’d provide the same information. So they each stated their respective height and eye color.
“I was born in 1940,” Francis said.
“So, what are you going to sing, Connie?” Jack asked.
Jack’s “stinginess” was probably best exemplified by a scene in the March 28, 1948 episode of the radio series. Jack, somewhat envious of Ronald Colman having won the OscarTM, asked to borrow it to show to Rochester. On the walk home, he was accosted by a man (Eddie Marr) who demanded, “your money or your life.”
“Look bud, I said your money or your life.”
“I’m thinking it over!” Jack retorted.
According to Benny’s autobiography/biography, Sunday Nights at Seven (page 89), begun by Jack and finished by his daughter, Joan, after his death (and cited in other sources as well), writers Milt Josefsberg and John Tackaberry were trying to come up with Jack’s response. Josefsberg kept saying “your money or your life” over and over again. Finally, Tackaberry burst out, “I’m thinking it over!” Both realized they’d found the perfect reply.
It (and Jack’s initial pause) got great laughs.
On the season opening Sept. 11, 1949 radio episode- Jack’s first on CBS- Jack was absent for most of the show, finally saying his first lines 22 minutes into the half-hour program. His line, “this is where I get off, driver”, brought the house down.
Turns out Jack had been on a free tour bus provided by the chamber of commerce; and he’d asked to get off when the bus reached the CBS studios.
Radio historian Anthony Tollin wrote in the program booklet accompanying the Legends of Radio: The Ultimate Jack Benny Collection from Radio Spirits that CBS Chairman William Paley called Jack to ask how he’d had the guts to let most of the episode go by without him. In Sunday Nights at Seven (pages 239-241), Jack said he did the same thing for the debut episode of the 1951-52 TV season, and that was the reason for Paley’s call. But whenever the call was made, Jack’s entrance was comedy gold. And as Jack pointed out, he was still “there”, because other characters were talking about him.
Even in his celebrated 15-year “feud” with his friend Fred Allen, Jack made himself the brunt of jokes. Unlike Jack, Allen was known for ad-libs; and when Allen made a cutting off-the-cuff remark in an episode of his program where Jack was a guest, Jack retorted, “you wouldn’t say that if my writers were here.”
Jack also made fun of a 1945 movie he starred in, The Horn Blows at Midnight, blaming himself for the movie’s somewhat lackluster box office performance. In the Feb. 15, 1948 episode, when he thought everyone had forgotten his birthday (“Oh my goodness, I forgot to put out the garbage!”, Rochester proclaimed when asked the significance of Saturday, Feb. 14), Jack went for a walk and came upon a theatre showing The Horn Blows at Midnight.
A number of digs at the movie then followed. First the woman selling tickets told Jack that if he was a robber, he’d wasted his time; they hadn’t sold a ticket all week.
And then, after having seen the film three times, the manager asked Jack to go home so they can could close up for the night. Jack asked why the woman had said they hadn’t sold any tickets, when he’d noticed nearly every seat was occupied.
The manager’s explanation? They rented it out as a storage room for a mortuary.
When Jack replied that that’s amazing, the man agreed.
“Yesterday, right in the middle of the picture, three of them got up and walked out.”
In 1945, The Jack Benny Show presented the “I Can’t Stand Jack Benny Because-” contest, with $10,000 in Victory Bonds as prizes, $2,500 worth of which went to the winner. Ronald Colman read the winning entry on the Feb. 3, 1946 broadcast. He said of it, “the things we find fault with in others are the same things we tolerate in ourselves.”
The winning entry, penned by one Carroll P. Craig, Sr., concluded with “And all the things that he (Benny) portrays/ show up my own obnoxious ways.”
In that episode, Jack took Mary Livingstone (his real-life wife) to the Philharmonic Auditorium, to see Isaac Stern. Jack, who was- naturally- in the cheap seats, tried to get Colman’s attention several rows below. Jack leaned over too far and-
His toupee fell into Colman’s lap. Colman then read the tag, which told the finder to consult the lost and found column of the local paper for a reference to a “cocker spaniel with a cold nose and a part on the side.”
Toupee jokes were more digs at Jack’s supposed vanity. He actually had his own hair.
As I said, in real life Jack was very generous. According to John Dunning in On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old Time Radio (page 357), Jack “overtipped in restaurants, gave away his time in countless benefit performances, and was lavish in his praise of almost everyone else.”
He also paid his cast very well, but some people confused the on-air persona with the real man, including an attorney who wrote Jack a series of letters protesting the abysmal salary he paid Rochester. As Jack related in Sunday Nights at Seven (page 102), he finally wrote back stating A) “Rochester” was actually an actor named Eddie Anderson; B) Anderson made $1,600 a week; C) he lived in a 10-room mansion; and D) he had three servants of his own.
Jack also supported Anderson in other ways, too. In one instance, most recently cited in a story in the July 12, 2009 edition of the Columbia (MO) Daily Tribune, Jack and company went to stay at a certain hotel in St. Joseph. But the hotel refused to allow Anderson to stay because of his race. Jack’s reply: “If he doesn’t stay here, neither do I.”
And so Anderson stayed.
One of my closest friends is a life-long Jack Benny fan, and at last year’s Cincinnati Old Time Radio and Nostalgia Convention, Karen was cast as Mary Livingstone in a re-creation of a Jack Benny Show episode opposite Eddie Carroll (who does a one-man show as Jack Benny (see www.eddiecarroll.com) playing Jack.
Karen, a teacher, also shares her love of Jack Benny with her students. She said she’s used his shows to demonstrate to her teenage students ways in which social values have changed; ways in which humor has changed; how sound effects were used; how dialogue is used to set a scene rather than visual clues, etc.
“I’ve talked about him as an individual to emphasize the importance of showing respect and kindness and humility,” she said.
Jack Benny was a true American institution, and if you ask me the Post Office blew it big time when they didn’t issue a Jack Benny postage stamp when stamps were 39¢.
Many of his radio and TV shows are available on CD or DVD, respectively. You can also watch his TV series Sunday mornings at 9 a.m. on digital channel 7.2. (the Retro TV Network).
But I’ll let Karen- to whom this entry is dedicated- have the last word.
“In Milt Josefsberg’s book The Jack Benny Show, he says, ‘I always thought Jack Benny was immortal. I still do.’ Jack is immortal: he continues to influence not only comedians and entertainers, but everyday people as well. Countless sources describe him as kind, polite, generous, caring, and humble, and we can all try to live up to his example.”
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Karen Hughes and Eddie Carroll perform as Mary Livingstone and Jack Benny at the 2009 Cincinnati Old Time Radio and Nostalgia Convention. Photo courtesy of Dan Hughes.
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Jack Benny. Photo courtesy the International Jack Benny Fan Club.
Copyright 2010 Patrick Keating